VERMILLION, S.D. -- Sheila Gestring laid out her vision for making college more affordable for South Dakotans and growing the state's skilled workforce as the 47-year-old was inaugurated Wednesday as the University of South Dakota's 18th president.
Gestring assumed office on June 22, succeeding retiring president Jim Abbott, who led the university for 21 years.
Abbott touted Gestring's leadership and her fiscal prowess as he introduced her at the school's first presidential inauguration ceremony in more than 20 years.
"USD's strong financial position is the result of her ability to solve complex budgetary problems and meet financial challenges in innovative ways," Abbott said of Gestring, who previously served as the school's chief financial officer.
During her remarks at Aalfs Auditorium, Gestring, the university's second female president and the second graduate to hold the office, emphasized college access, affordability, career-focused education and her enthusiasm for the school's "Discovery District" in Sioux Falls, which is under development.
"This year alone, the University of South Dakota Foundation awarded more than $7 million to 3,673 students," Gestring told the audience. "But despite this significant contribution, for too many South Dakotans, the promise of an education remains out of reach. Each year, an estimated 6,000 South Dakotans would benefit from a state needs-based scholarship. Now is the time for South Dakota to join the rest of the country in providing that opportunity to students."
She also touted the "Dakota Advantage Program," which offers in-state tuition to students from the nearby states of Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.
"Another way USD will be able to help fulfill our state's workforce needs is by attracting students from out of state, who would otherwise have never had the benefit of living and working in South Dakota," Gestring said. "It's estimated that 30 percent of these students that attend a South Dakota public university, will stay in South Dakota after graduation."
During a brief interview with the Journal following the ceremony, Gestring said she would like to explore renovations and improvements to the aging Fine Arts building. She noted a survey taken by the student government association showed that a majority of students would like to see updates to the facility.
Gestring also said USD's law school, which in the past has struggled with poor bar exam passage rates, financial challenges, fewer applicants and threats to its accreditation, is moving in the right direction.
"This past year, the law school has just taken off in the best way," Gestring said. "We added a top scholars program, which is full tuition and fees for the top 15 students. We ended up with a class that had a higher average LSAT than we've had since 2010. The class size actually increased in the process, by 22 percent. And our bar pass rate improved from 52 percent to 82 percent."
At one point, university leaders considered moving the school to Sioux Falls. After a series of meetings and study, USD decided to keep it on the main campus in Vermillion. The law school, the only one in the state, is currently seeking a new dean.
Among those in attendance for the inauguration Wednesday were Gestring's husband, Keith, and their two children, Dillon, 16, and Wyatt, 14, as well as Gestring's parents.
Gov. Kristi Noem, U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson were all invited to Wednesday's ceremony, but were unable to attend due to legislative obligations. Each sent a staffer to speak in their place.
"I am sure that continuing to prepare the next generation of students to be in the workforce of tomorrow will be a top priority for this new administration," Steve Westra, commissioner of the governor's Office of Economic Development, said. "I know the governor looks forward to working together on these issues."
DES MOINES — A 2.1 percent general funding boost for Iowa’s K-12 public schools is on its way to the governor’s desk for approval.
The Iowa Senate on Wednesday approved the $3.3 billion public school state funding package, which includes funding for districts with high transportation costs and for districts’ per pupil spending levels.
The bills, previously passed by the Iowa House, head to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her approval. Reynolds, who called for similar funding levels in her budget proposal, is expected to approve the package.
“With the Iowa Legislature’s approval of historic preK-12 school funding, we can continue moving forward in preparing our young people for the challenges of a 21st century economy,” Reynolds said in a statement. “I look forward to signing this legislation shortly after it reaches my desk because it’s a critical piece for our local schools districts to have in place as they plan for the next school year. Without question, Iowans are the true winners as a result of this year’s record investment in education.”
The 2.1 percent increase in general funding is higher than the previous two budget years, which saw increases of 1.1 percent and 1 percent. But it still lags the pre-2008 recession norm of 4 percent increases.
“Iowa prioritizes education,” said Amy Sinclair, a Republican from Allerton and the chairwoman of the Senate’s education committee. “The bill before you is a responsible and sustainable measure that will continue the great history that we have here.”
Senate Democrats proposed a 3-percent general funding boost, which was rejected by a party-line vote.
“(The 2.1 percent increase) doesn’t even make up for inflation for the last two years, and it does nothing for inflation for the next year,” said Herman Quirmbach, a senator from Ames and the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee. “(A 3 percent increase) at least adds a little bit more.”
The general funding bill passed largely on a party-line vote with four Democrats -- Sens. Jeff Danielson of Cedar Falls, Liz Mathis of Hiawatha, Tony Bisignano of Des Moines, and Kevin Kinney of Oxford -- joining Republicans in support.
The package also includes $19 million for districts whose transportation costs comprise a larger share of their general budget than others’. That is an increase of $7.9 million over the previous budget year.
It also boosts district per-pupil spending levels by $5 per student, which translates to $2.3 million in new funding. Districts with higher per pupil costs will get state aid to replace funds that would have come from property taxes. Districts, like Davenport, with lower per pupil expenditures would receive additional spending authority.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story omitted one of the Democrats who voted for the general funding bill for K-12 schools.
DES MOINES — Legislation to prohibit traffic enforcement cameras got a yellow light Wednesday as a House subcommittee advanced the bill, but members indicated they anticipate regulating the devices rather than banning them.
Although he has concerns about the cameras, Public Safety Committee Chairman Jarad Klein, R-Keota, conceded they may serve the public interest so he’s willing to look for middle ground — something less than an outright ban, but more than the largely unregulated use of cameras to catch motorists who speed and run red lights.
“There are some of these cameras that are definitely useful for safety,” Klein said during a hearing on House Study Bill 125. “But I also think there are a lot of them out there that are being used as a revenue-generating source.”
Speakers told the subcommittee revenue is being used to hire police officers, pay for cities to upgrade equipment — such as radios that can be a part of a statewide communication system — and other public safety priorities.
While it remains to be seen how Klein will modify his bill, lobbyists for Iowa cities that have cameras and the companies that supply them encouraged legislators to establish a regulatory framework rather than a ban.
Scott Weiser, a lobbyist for Redflex Traffic Systems, encouraged the subcommittee to move in the direction of the “best practices bill,” to regulate the cameras. That’s House Study Bill 36, sponsored by Transportation Committee Chairwoman Ashley Hinson, R-Marion. That bill, he said, includes protection for the due process concerns some people had regarding enforcement.
Iowa courts have addressed some concerns about the cameras, but Pete McRoberts of ACLU of Iowa, which is calling for a total ban, said legislators represent “all the people, so your scope is much broader.”
He said the Department of Revenue is being used to withhold tax returns to pay for camera-generated citations. That’s an abuse of power, not public safety, he told the House subcommittee Wednesday.
In some areas, such as the S-curve on Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids, “it’s simply too dangerous for motorists and officers to run traditional traffic enforcement,” the city’s lobbyist, Gary Grant, said.
Rep. Tim Kacena, D-Sioux City, opposed the ban for public safety reasons. He didn’t sign the bill.
Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, signed the bill despite being torn between concerns over public safety and civil liberties. He also questioned whether cities should be allowed to place cameras on the interstate system.
David Adelman of the Metropolitan Coalition, which represents large cities, also called for moving in the direction of Hinson’s bill. Cities support allowing cameras in school zones, construction zones and other high-risk areas, and requiring signs between 500 and 1,000 feet before each camera to alert motorists.
In the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, plans to move ahead with his bill to ban the automated enforcement devices. His push for a total ban stalled last year, but he said he believes it will have more support this year despite the retirement of Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids.
Another bill proposing a total ban, HF 253 by Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, has been assigned to Hinson’s Transportation Committee. No subcommittee has been assigned.